Today the former editor of the Belorussian newspaper Zgoda Aleksandr Sdvizhkov was sentenced to three years in prison for having republished the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.
This case is a perfect illustration of how insult laws are being used by authoritarian regimes to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Zgoda was a newspaper affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Belarus. They supported a candidate from the opposition in the presidential election in the spring of 2006. After the publication of the cartoons the State Committee for religious and ethnic affairs (a government department) approached the local mufti Ismail Varanovich, and brought his attention to the publication. They even made a copy of the paper that, by the way, never reached its reader, and asked the mufti to notify the police that the religious sensibilities of muslims in Belarus had been offended.
The authorities immediately pressed criminal charges against Aleksandr Sdvizhkov for ”inciting racial, ethnic and religious hatred” (article 130, 2 of the criminal code). Sdvizhkov fled to Russia and the newspaper was closed in March 2006, two days before the presidential election. President Aleksandr Lukashenko won a third term receiving 86 percent of the vote.
This tragic event stresses the point that in an increasingly globalized world supporters of the right to free speech have to fight insult laws on a global level. That means that Denmark and other European countries have to get rid of blasphemy laws and anti-racism laws, because oppressors in other parts of the world will point to those laws defending their own that are being used against critics, dissenters and minorities.
They will claim:
“You have laws against blasphemy, religious hatred and racism, and so do we. So why all the fuzz? We are just acting as a civilized country.”
The only limitation on speech we need are laws against incitement to violence. All other laws should be removed from the books. In a democracy no one has a right not to be offended.